Wednesday, June 22, 2022

What about My Dad?

I learned a lot from my dad, who I called Daddy.

Daddy was pouring me some raisin bran and he said, "Raisins used to be grapes. They dry them in the sun. And prunes used to be plums."

I was amazed that something could also be something else. Cucumbers, he told me later, can become pickles. Incredible.

When I was a toddler I was watching Daddy shave in the bathroom, and a giant rat ran between his feet, and Daddy never blinked.

Once Daddy was eating dinner and a fly kept buzzing around his food and my mom said "Rogers, watch out for that fly," and Daddy said, "Let the fly watch out for itself."
Mamma and Daddy

Daddy said basketball was for sissies. It's a girl's game. Football is for boys. 

Daddy said Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and 4-H'ers were all for sissies. "You don't wanna run around in shorts," he said. That was true. Men didn't wear shorts back then unless they were swimming or playing basketball. 

But I went to a Cub Scout meeting to see what it was all about and sure enough the boys wore shorts and their Den Master was a woman so I left and never came back, plus I was never in 4-H. Maybe all boy clubs were for sissies.

One day Daddy came by my elementary school to drop off a book I had forgotten, and my class was eating lunch and Richard said, "Roy, there's your dad," and I looked over my shoulder and he was peeping in at us through the door's window and I raced to the door to grab the book so he would go away and quit embarrassing me, and he said, "I saw Rhonda," because he knew I had a crush on her, and I said "I know," because if I had said "Please leave" he would have become very angry and it never dawned on me to talk back to him or tell him what to do, ever.

Daddy would take me to movies and correct misrepresentations. In The Giant of Marathon, he laughed at body-builder Steve Reeves straining to push a plow pulled by a horse.

"That's silly," he said. "You let the horse do the work." "Well, Steve Reeves sure is strong," I said. "But he don't need to be strong," Daddy said. "He's doing it wrong."

When scrawny actors like Frank Sinatra or Alan Ladd beat up people in movies, Daddy would snort. "That guy coulda snapped Sinatra in two like a dry stick," he would say. And, "I guarantee you they got Ladd standing on a stool. He's barely five-foot-five with boots on." 

And he thought Robert Mitchum tried too hard to look like a tough guy. He made fun of Yul Brynner's acting in The Ten Commandments.

He liked Will Rogers and Charlie Chaplin, and he could imitate the latter. 

Military movies drove him nuts. They got everything wrong! "If you ever saluted like that, the drill sergeant would knock your block off." "Nobody that age would ever be master sergeant, for Pete's sake." "That is not how you hold a rifle if you wanna hit anything." "All this is, is Hollywood."

If you're ever in a fight, Daddy said, use your left hand to block the blows, then come in with your right, and if the other fellow's protecting his head, and he better be, hit him in the kidneys and after a while he won't even be able to stand up.

We were cutting wood for the fireplace and Daddy said Jack Dempsey would train for fights by chopping wood and there was never a better boxer.

And he said don't just hit the wood straight on with your ax, hit it at an angle, from up top, then coming up from the bottom and that's how you get the chips flying. And when you're sawing with a cross-cut, don't pull down, don't put pressure on it, just pull it straight, then just relax enough so the other fellow can pull it straight back.

If you do it right, you don't get tired so easy. There's a right way and a wrong way to do everything.

He showed me how to make a tree fall where you wanted it to when you were cutting it down. "You do it wrong and it falls on your head."

So I learned about cutting firewood.

At church, he made fun of the choir director, a guy named Tommy Thompson. He would imitate him at home and say, "He looks like a buzzard flapping its wings when it's taking off from a carcass."

Daddy sang around the house all the time, and far as I could tell, it was good singing, but no one ever complimented him. He sang hymns, "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and "Mares Eat Oats," and songs from Carousel ("June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "You'll Never Walk Alone") and Oklahoma! ("Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "Surrey with the Fringe on Top") and "Stout-Hearted Men" and more. Mama's response: "You're giving me a headache."

He taught me what an overture was and told me to listen for the buzzing in Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," and explained what was happening in Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." 

He listened to the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida until everyone in our house had it memorized whether we liked it or not.

I was 9 when Daddy told me about these pieces. He got the albums free from a grocery store through some sort of promotion.

Aside from the music, he didn't care much for church. He never said that, but we'd go weeks without going, a sabbatical that made my cup overflow with joy. 

But eventually he and my mom would rejoin the flock, my sister and me in tow. It was an ought, a should for him, an obligation to a rural community at mid-century. You don't want to be the guy who doesn't go to church. His friend M.C. didn't go so people said he was an atheist and would go to hell.

He said if John Kennedy was elected, the Pope would be running the country.

He said holy rollers were crackpots.

But mostly he didn't teach me about religious doctrine.

When my sister and I were very young, he read Old Testament stories to us, stories of violence, miracles, heroism, of faithful Ruth and nasty Jezebel, but he never spoke of morals or lessons. David bouncing a rock off Goliath's head had nothing to do with church.

He didn't care much for baseball, but he hated the New York Yankees anyway. They were yankees for godsake!

He said Wilt Chamberlain's legs were too skinny. 

He said Cassius Clay had no chance against Floyd Patterson. Wrong.

He said Cassius Clay had no chance against Sonny Liston. Wrong.

He said male teachers were sissies. I don't think he knew what a professor was. 

He read Hemingway and talked me into reading Old Man and the Sea, then took me to the movie which was horrible but I was too young to know it, plus I was fascinated by the fact that every word in the title had three letters. 

He went to see Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Misfits, but said they were too dirty for me to see. What he really wanted to see was a Brigitte Bardot movie, but I'm not sure he ever did. We lived in Madison.

One night he pointed out the Milky Way and explained it. He tried to explain how far away the stars were. He told me where the light on the moon came from and why sometimes you could only see part of it.

When our car broke down, he was not afraid to walk in the dark singing "Ghost Riders in the Sky." It creeped me out.

He never got over losing his farm to fire and floods in the Forties.

He always wanted a horse, but never got one.

He wanted to own a house and some land, but never could afford them.

He wanted a brawny, combative, adventurous son and a healthy daughter, but never got them.

He wanted to fight in WWII, but was blind in one eye and got stuck in Yuma, AZ, as a marksmanship instructor. The blind eye made him perfect for that.

He was sorry we didn't take out the Russians at the end of WWII, and he wanted Goldwater to beat LBJ in '64 and then "drop an atom bum" on North Vietnam.

He was counting on George Wallace to slap some sense back into this country in 1968.

His life turned out nothing like the one he wanted, his every breath seemed disappointing, his very existence a study in frustration, but he didn't cuss.

And he didn't cry. And I learned why people do.

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